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The Four Gentlemen

Just the other weekend, I went to see The Four Gentlemen exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. I was really excited to see some Chinese paintings after having learnt some of them and it turns out that this is an exhibition of paintings from the museum’s collection, which I didn’t manage to check out earlier!

As a side note, the Museum is preparing for a renovation starting this year till 2018, and now only have five ongoing exhibitions including The Four Gentlemen while their permanent collection galleries are said to be “temporarily closed.” I would love it if I could explore their collection before they close it for the next 3 years!

Chinese paintings are drawn with black ink and a little color occasionally, so the overall effect is that the paintings appear a little dark. It doesn’t help that the lighting was kept low in the exhibition, though probably to protect the paintings as well.


Wu Tiansheng (act. ca. 1850 – 1880), Plum blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo, not dated, set of 4 hanging scrolls, ink on paper

The Four Gentlemen (四君子) refers to Plum Blossom (梅), Orchid (蘭), Chrysanthemum (菊) and Bamboo (竹). It’s an important facet of traditional Chinese culture, and something commonly known among Chinese people. This exhibition keeps it fresh by exhibiting relatively modern works by Chinese painters.

Objects in the study are often decorated with The Four Gentlemen, namely plum blossom, bamboo, orchid and chrysanthemum, because of their serene and leisurely charm that could purge the mind and purify the spirit.

Chen Jiru (陳繼儒) (1558-1639), Ming Dynasty



Plum Blossom – Unyielding Loyalty (梅 - 堅貞傲雪)


Wu Xuezao, Viewing plum blossoms in snow at night, dated 1891, hanging scroll, ink and color on paper
伍學藻,雪夜觀梅,1891 年款,水墨設色紙本立軸

Wu Xuezao’s Viewing plum blossoms in snow at night is said to be inspired by Lu You’s poetry. Lu You (1125-1210) was a Southern Song writer who was demoted from his political position due to differing ideals from the Jin dynasty rulers, and later turned to plum blossoms to assert his moral superiority.



There aren’t many Chinese paintings with people in them, given Chinese painters’ penchant for painting things of nature. At the very least, people are often drawn as part of a large setting and there is not much emphasis on how each person looks like. Since Wen’s work was in the 19th century, he probably took up the modern take on painting figures, and I really like the contrast between the lighter way the facial features and hands are drawn, and the way the robe is drawn with thin, darker, and more defined lines.

This is also in contrast to the setting with the more inky and defined plum blossoms and leaves, compared to the washed out grass, tree trunks, moon and skies.


Lu Zhenhuan, Viewing plum blossoms, dated 1925, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk
盧振寰,賞梅圖,1925 年款,水墨設色絹本立軸

This is one of my favourite pieces in the exhibition with its great geometric detail and again, contrast between the sharply defined rocks and trees in the foreground and the gray wash of the mountains in the background.



While looking at the painting again, I realized that it reminds me of Ren Xiong’s Myriad Valleys with Contending Streams in The Ten Myriads album (任熊,十萬圖冊,萬壑爭流), with a similar juxtaposition of the sharp lines of the rocks and the gentle curves of the waterfall. I really like that play with line and texture, and Lu somehow manages to combine all of these elements in one painting.




Wu Changshuo, Red plum blossoms and rock, dated 1921, hanging scroll, ink and color on paper
吳昌碩,紅梅圖,1921 年款,水墨設色紙本立軸

I was happy to see some paintings by Wu Changshuo having read about his works before. He was a painter of the Shanghai School (海上畫派) in the late 19th century and is known for applying epigraphic techniques to his work and developing a new style of ink painting. I really like how the plum blossoms are drawn so simply with small little circles, like it was almost effortless.


album leaf

Ju Lian, Plum blossoms, dated 1887, album of 12 leaves (selection), ink on paper
居廉,梅花冊,1887 年款,水墨紙本十二開冊 (選展)

Here are my favorite album leaves by Ju Lian. I love the delicacy of the small paintings and the way Ju utilizes empty space, especially in the middle album leaf!


Orchid – Etheral Elegance (蘭 - 脫俗清幽)


Gao Jianfu, Ink Orchids, dated 1940, hanging scroll, ink on paper
高劍父,墨蘭,1940 年款,水墨紙本立軸

Gao Jianfu is one of my favorite modern Chinese painters, though I’m a bigger fan of his brother Gao Qifeng’s (高奇峰) works! Gao Jianfu was one of the founders of the Lingnan School (嶺南畫派) which was influenced by the Japanese nihonga (日本畫) style in a bid to develop China’s own style of national painting (guohua 國畫). This was around the time of the Republic of China (1912-1949) when there was much political instability and artists painted subjects in the nihonga style to showcase the strength of the Chinese people. Nihonga, in my simple summarization, often makes use of a creamy wash and also creates a very nice atmospheric effect in paintings.

Gao Jianfu produced many paintings in this vein and I wonder if this painting had some of that political intention behind it. The nihonga style is not very evident in this work, but I like how effortless it looks and the way the orchids look bigger along the line creates a sense of movement. I also really like the detail of that one line of the leaf extending across the paper and making the white space part of the painting as well.



Ding Yanyong, Album of flowers and birds, ca. 1970s, double-sided album of 18 double leaves (selection), ink on paper
丁衍庸,水墨雜冊,約於 1970 年代,水墨紙本雙面冊頁共十八對開 (選展)


Wu Deyi, Orchids, not dated, set of 4 horizontal scrolls, ink on paper

This is one of the four scrolls by Wu Deyi and I really like the details of the dabs of ink to form the background and the almost smudged ink in the rock. It’s really interesting to see how ink and brush can be utilized in different ways to form these varied images.




Gu Qingyao, Ink orchid, dated 1967, hanging scroll, ink on paper
顧青瑤,墨蘭,1967 年款,水墨紙本立軸


Chrysanthemum – Lofty Reclusion (菊 - 高潔浚霜)


Su Liupeng, Brewing wine from chrysanthemums, not dated, album leaf, ink and color on silk



Deng Fen, Portrait of Tao Yuanming, dated 1940, hanging scroll, ink and color on paper
鄧芬,陶淵明採菊圖,1940 年款,水墨設色紙本立軸

While writing this post, I was picking my parents’ brains for help since I don’t know much of these traditional stuff having grown up in a less Chinese environment. I randomly asked, “Who’s Tao Yuanming?” and my parents went, “Ohhh, he’s really famous!” and started reciting his passages to my surprise.

Tao Yuanming was an Eastern Jin writer who initially worked for the Chinese government but eventually quit. He resolutely stuck to his principles and refused to continue having any ties to the authorities. There are many cases of literati or scholars in older dynasties who quit working in politics and moved on to live a quiet life. Tao loved chrysanthemums and they have since become a symbol representing him. Of course, he is here seen holding a small bouquet of chrysanthemum flowers.


Again, I like how naturalistic the figure is painted, with a nice contrast between his delicate facial features (and beard!) and the lines of his robe that appears very flowy.




Wu Changshuo, Teapot and chrysanthemum in the style of Chen Chun, not dated, fan, ink and color on paper

There were few fans exhibited, but it’s fascinating to think that artists used to paint on them and people probably fanned themselves with these. Anyhow, Wu was inspired by Chen Chun (陳淳), who I found out was a Ming Dynasty painter known for his xieyi bird and flower paintings (花鳥畫). Xieyi (寫意) is, very simply, a freehand brushwork style that captures the essence of a subject in a somewhat impressionistic manner with less attention to detail.

The wall didactic at the exhibition also mentions that the teapot “[articulates] the pleasure of chrysanthemum appreciation” and I think it refers to chrysanthemum tea, hee!

And I’m no expert on Chinese calligraphy, but I love Wu’s calligraphy.


Cui Zifan, Chrysanthemums, dated 1990, horizontal scroll, ink and color on paper
崔子範,菊黃時節,1990 年款,水墨設色紙本橫幅

It was interesting to turn the corner and see such a modern piece by Cui Zifan. It’s very different from the rest of the paintings in the exhibition, with Cui’s use of blunt brushstrokes and brighter colors.


Bamboo – Noble Humility (竹 - 虛心亮節)


Gao Jianfu, Bamboo in snow, not dated, hanging scroll, ink and color on paper

As mentioned earlier, I’m a fan of Gao’s. In this painting, you can see his dramatic style of painting but I prefer Gao Qifeng’s more serene style.



Zheng Naiguang, Ducklings and bamboo, dated 1980, vertical scroll, ink and color on paper
鄭乃珖,竹鴨,1980 年款,水墨設色紙本直幅

The ducklings are so cute! And so expertly drawn with those watery dabs of ink.


Yao Gengyun, Fang Zengxian and Lu Kunfeng, Rafts along the bamboo bank, dated 1975, horizontal scroll, ink and color on paper
姚耕雲,方增先及盧坤峰,竹筏,1975 年款,水墨設色紙本橫幅

This is a very nice large painting mostly dedicated to showcasing the bamboo bank although the title seems to emphasize the rafts on the left. I’m not sure if that was actually the point but my favorite part of the painting is definitely those miniscule figures riding their rafts.



Ren Xun, Scholar resting, dated 1876, round fan, ink and color on silk
仁薰,竹園高士,1876 年款水墨設色絹本團扇

I spent quite a while staring at Ren Xun’s Scholar resting because the way it was painted looked very much like works by other 19th century artists I had previously seen in digital images and books. It’s interesting because I find that Chinese paintings look very similar in real life as when you see them in a reproduced image. It’s definitely a different experience from viewing oil paintings in real life, for example.

This wraps up my visit viewing The Four Gentlemen exhibition! I have to say that I was initially surprised by how big those hanging scrolls are although the actual paintings might not be that big.

The exhibition has been ongoing since 5th December 2014 and the ending date has not been announced as of yet. Do check it out at:

Chinese Art Gallery (4/F)
Hong Kong Museum of Art
10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Mondays to Fridays 10:00am – 6:00pm
Saturdays, Sundays & Public Holidays 10:00am – 7:00pm
Closed on Thursdays (except public holidays)

Standard Ticket $10
Concession Ticket $5

Check out the Hong Kong Museum of Art’s website here.

I will be continuing on the next part of my trip to the Museum about the other exhibitions currently on view as well. Stay tuned! ;)

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